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Hypatia Day commemorates women in science

| Thursday, March 6, 2014

Who says mathematics and science are exclusively male-dominated areas of study?

Saturday at Saint Mary’s College, nearly 80 seventh and eighth-grade girls defied this stereotype as they participated in various science labs and math-oriented activities for Hypatia Day.

Hypatia Day was first organized in 1991 by Sr. Miriam Patrick Cooney, professor emerita of mathematics. Hypatia Day is meant to provide a unique experience for young girls interested in careers in math and science, director of Media Relations Gwen O’Brien said.

The event was an opportunity for middle school girls from seven local counties to visit Saint Mary’s and be engaged and mentored by math and science majors, O’Brien said.

With the help of Saint Mary’s students and faculty from the math and science departments, students from the surrounding Michiana and Mishawaka area received an early taste of what it is like to be a science or math major, O’Brien said.

Various classrooms around the campus were used to showcase the applications of math, engineering, science and other associated fields, O’Brien said.

Hypatia Day is named for the first known female mathematician, Hypatia of Alexandria, who was the daughter of ancient Greek mathematician and philosopher Theon, she said.

According to legend, Hypatia’s father taught her mathematics during a period in Greek history when young, female girls were excluded from education, O’Brien said.

“Hypatia knew something these girls may be figuring out: Math and science are for girls too,” O’Brien said.

Associate professor of mathematics and director of Hypatia Day Kristin Kuter said the visiting middle school students were treated to a special address by this year’s keynote speaker, Dr. Tracy Kijewski-Correa, who is an associate professor and chair of the Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences Department at Notre Dame.

“[She] was very dynamic, down to earth, and inspirational,” Kuter said. “She focused on empowering the young women in the audience and encouraging them to continue to pursue an education in STEM, emphasizing its power.”

The remainder of the day included panel discussions between participating faculty and the girls’ parents that stressed the importance of support for the girls, who participated in hands-on sessions with Saint Mary’s math and science majors, O’Brien said.

A variety of activities were put on by the math and computer science clubs, which helped the girls decode encrypted messages and code in programming language.

The chemistry club had the girls make “goo” and look at different colored flames produced by various substances, and the biology and engineering clubs integrated their fundamental elements into fun games, Kuter said.

“The student participants seemed to enjoy the hands-on activities, and the parents were very grateful for the information we provided about the upcoming curricular choices that should be made for their daughter to continue on to college,” Kuter said.

This is Kuter’s fifth year running the event since she inherited the task from her predecessor, professor Ewa Misiolek, Kuter said.

“[It is important to] encourage young women, especially those that are transitioning from middle to high school, that they can do anything, including math or science,” Kuter said.

Kuter believes it is all a matter of self-confidence and self-esteem in terms of encouraging girls interested in mathematics and the sciences to continue to strive for achievement, Kuter said.

“Girls need to be encouraged to persevere. They need to be told they can do it,” she said. “The stereotype that girls cannot excel in math and science unfortunately still exists in society and we need to counteract those messages at every opportunity possible, before the student disengages.

“Given the research, if these girls are not encouraged, they may not have the confidence to continue.”

Kuter said this year’s event was a success, and she hopes next year’s Hypatia Day will include an added session for physics students.

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